________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 1 . . . . September 4, 2009


Theresa's Journey. (The Green Star Lake Series, Book 2).

Robert Checkwitch.
Albany, PE: Green Star Lake Books (www.greenstarlake.com), 2007.
77 pp., pbk., $9.75.
ISBN 978-0-9730475-3-0.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters and Rhonda Morrissette.

**½ /4


Powerful Forces. (The Green Star Lake Series, Book 3).

Robert Checkwitch.
Albany, PE: Green Star Lake Books (www.greenstarlake.com), 2008.
127 pp., pbk., $9.75.
ISBN 978-0-9730475-4-7.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters and Rhonda Morrissette.

**½ /4


Theresa looked out the window of the 10-seater airplane as it circled over Winnipeg before landing. It was the first time she had been this far from Green Star Lake. Her year-old son, Chance, was on her mind for most of the trip. She had never been away from Chance for more than a couple of days, but now she realized she wouldn't see her son until Christmas. The thought depressed and scared her, even though she knew her mother would take good care of Chance. She hoped that this father, Jimmy, her former boyfriend, would spend more time with him so he could get to know his son.

As the plane hit the runway her first thought was to get off the plane, get her things then buy a ticket back home. It would be easy. Then she wouldn't have to deal with all the unknowns that twirled in her head. Everybody got off the plane, leaving her as the only remaining passenger. The pilot turned around and looked at Theresa with a questioning expression. Finally, after a couple of minutes he asked, "Are you getting off?" and then he smiled at her. "Do you need help?"

"No, no," she blurted out, "I'm fine, just fine. I don't need help."

She forced herself to get up and made her way to the front of the plane. The pilot, a tall, good-looking, young blond man, stood beside the door waiting patiently.

"I think everything is going to be fine," he said.

What did he know about her life and what she was facing? (From Theresa's Journey.)


In Theresa's Journey, (Book 2 of the four-part "Green Star Lake Series"), the 17-year-old single mom faces huge challenges: she has left her tiny Cree settlement in northern Manitoba to finish high school in Winnipeg. Theresa is enrolled in a large urban high school and has left behind a tightly-knit community to board with a family in a comfortable upper middle-class neighbourhood. School is intimidating and not just because of the huge building and a student population which is more than ten times the size of her home village. She is one of no more than a dozen native students at that high school. Although she has completed Grade 10, Theresa quickly finds herself under-prepared for some courses. And, if that weren't enough, Jimmy follows her to Winnipeg where he quickly becomes caught up in street gang life. Jimmy's invitation to attend a party with his new "friends" leads to Theresa's nearly being a victim of sexual assault; intervention by a young university student named Keith saves her from that peril but marks the start of a new relationship, one which will quickly derail the plans she had for completing her education and following a different path.

     Powerful Forces, the next book in the "Green Star Lake Series" continues the story of Jimmy and Theresa, who, despite being pregnant with Keith's child, has returned to Winnipeg to finish Grade 11. Bruce, "that strange white guy" who had been Theresa's math tutor at her Winnipeg high school, left his comfortable home to live in Green Star Lake where he was "working with the little kids in the school and living ‘native style' at Lucas' cabin in the bush. He was trying to learn Cree." Jimmy is no scholar, but he knows that completing his Grade 10 offers the chance to go to school in Winnipeg, and perhaps re-establish his relationship with Theresa. Bruce, whom Jimmy always saw as a rival for Theresa's affections, has become involved with Arielle, a teacher assistant at the Green Star Lake school. Then, there is the complicated yearning of Vincent, a new student at the school. Vincent finds himself in Green Star Lake because his parents have reconciled and Green Star Lake is his mother's village. But, life is "upsetting and depressing. He had no friends. Most people avoided him. His mother and father were back together again, after several years, but he often felt uncomfortable in the house. By now the whole community knew he was gay," and he is very attracted to Jimmy (who is not at all interested in Vincent.) If this weren't complicated enough, Jimmy decides that the only way to deal with his lack of cash is to return to a life of drug dealing and alcohol smuggling. Although Paul, the local shaman, has tried to get Jimmy to undertake a vision quest in order to find peace, courage, and the strength to confront his own weaknesses, the lure of easy money and excitement appears to be a more powerful force, until circumstances lead Jimmy to re-examine the direction in which he finds himself heading.

     Robert Checkwitch, author of the "Green Star Lake" books spent years both as a Language Arts teacher and as a school principal in First Nations schools in northern Manitoba and northern Quebec. On his web site, he states his intention behind the series: "I felt that the life they knew in northern communities: the unique situations and activities, the traditional ways, could form the basis of novels to interest students who might not otherwise read much fiction. This has been my goal from the beginning –– to get students to read the first few pages and want to continue reading."

     Having no experience with life in northern First Nations communities, and limited experience with students of native background, I asked Rhonda Morrissette, teacher-librarian at the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre (WAEC), to read and respond to the books summarized in the previous paragraphs. The WAEC is an urban high school whose students face many of the same challenges as does Theresa: early parenthood, dislocation from home communities, and financial privation. The target audience for the series is for students in Grades 9 through 11. Rhonda thought that the students she encounters –– many of whom are adult basic literacy students -- might also enjoy the books. Because of Rhonda's personal and professional experience, I asked her for her perspective on the authenticity of the content. She commented that "The Green Star Lake Series deals with the multiplicity of life issues and challenges unique to northern Aboriginal youth, including teenage pregnancy, sporadic funding, poverty, family illnesses, alcoholic parents, bullying and the pull towards easy money and excitement of gang life or crime. Unlike many other high (interest)/low(vocabulary) books, this series follows many characters, challenges and storylines simultaneously." And, this last point is significant because students who do not read much fiction might find it difficult to keep track of the characters and multiple plots.

     As I read the books, I found an over-reliance on narrative; there was too much "telling" and not enough "showing," a notable exception being the snowmobile chase scene towards the end of Powerful Forces. Unlike many other high/low series, "The Green Star Lake Series" books have very plain covers, and while this point might seem trivial, interesting cover art can entice a non-reader to pick up a book which they might not otherwise consider. Recalling Checkwitch's intention that his books offer adolescent First Nations students a reading experience based in the context of their life, I asked Rhonda if she thought that the books would appeal to readers outside of that particular audience. She stated that "some students interested in life in Canada's north would enjoy reading these books. The use of ‘low vocabulary' to meet the needs of the target audience precludes the rich, stirring, perceptive literature of enduring value (compared to Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road or Through Black Spruce). There is a growing recognition that Aboriginal authorship of Aboriginal issues is important, and growing distrust of non-Aboriginal writers writing about Aboriginal issues, particularly when it relates to spiritual ceremonies such as the sweat lodge."

     I'll give Rhonda the final word: "The books fill a void for the targeted audience, but offer limited appeal to those wanting a richer, authentic literary experience about Aboriginal life in Canada's northern communities."

Recommended with reservations.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School while Rhonda Morrissette is a teacher-librarian at the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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